The Ireland Under-20s played their way right back into contention in Pool B of the IRB Junior World Championship with a bonus point win over last year’s runners-up Wales.
Mike Ruddock's young team showed impressive composure to run out 14-point winners in Pukekohe despite leaking two tries via scrum pressure and having Peter Dooley and Alex Wootton sin-binned either side of half-time.
It was a hugely satisfying win especially given the injuries that have troubled the Irish camp and the age profile of the squad – nine players are eligible for the Under-20 grade again next season.
To put this performance in context, you have to go back to February 2004 to find a similar result for Ireland against Wales at Under-20/Under-21 level. Back then, tries from future senior stars Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe helped the Ireland U-21s record a 30-19 win over Wales at the Sportsground.
Key to the current crop's first victory in New Zealand was a stunning start which saw Dooley's front row colleague Rory Burke and classy centre Garry Ringrose both cross the whitewash inside 11 minutes.
Wootton, one of two changes from the 19-13 loss to France, made an immediate impact with an angled run on the right as he combined to good effect with Gaffney and Ringrose.
Ireland leaked a penalty on their first visit to the Welsh 22 but were quick to return, Gaffney gobbling up a Ross Byrne cross-field kick and the ball was recycled for tighthead Burke to step off his right and power over for the opening try.
Byrne added a terrific conversion from wide out on the right and as Wales attempted to respond, a crucial intervention from the work-hungry Cian Kelleher kept them at bay.
Wales were clearly rocked and a knock-on by their full-back Ashley Evans preceded Ireland's second try. Captain Jack O'Donoghue went close after tapping a free-kick and powering towards the line, but quick recycling again and a crisp feed from Nick McCarthy saw his half-back partner Byrne send Ringrose over to the left of the posts.
Byrne converted for a 14-0 scoreline but Wales managed to hit back by the end of the first quarter, using their lineout maul to set up the opportunity. Scrum half Luc Jones drew in two defenders before popping an inviting short pass for winger Tyler Morgan to break onto and race clear from just outside the 22.
Angus O'Brien's conversion halved Ireland's lead before lively attacking from the very effective Dan Goggin and Kelleher got Ireland on the move once more. A penalty from offside was sent through the uprights by Byrne for a 10-point buffer.
Wales enjoyed increasing territory and possession on the half hour, albeit with O'Brien missing a drop goal from scrappy ball.
A booming kick to touch from Evans brought the Welsh to within five metres of the Irish line and after O'Donoghue was turned over in contact, the young Dragons went for the jugular in the scrum – an area of the game that they dominated when the sides met in Athlone in February.
Having had to defend for 16 phases just metres out, the Irish pack then leaked two penalties at scrum time and a third saw loosehead Dooley sin-binned. Denis Coulson came on with O'Donoghue moving into the second row for the next scrum and Gaffney packing down at number 8.
Ireland survived the initial pressure through a couple of resets but the beefy Welsh front row then gained crucial momentum and Argentine referee Federico Anselmi awarded them a penalty try – their third of the tournament – which O'Brien converted with the last kick of the half, reducing the arrears to 17-14.
It was a big psychological blow to Ireland's chances and a second yellow card just after the restart saw Wootton join Dooley on the sidelines. A clumsy challenge from the winger saw his knee connect with O'Brien's back and TMO Vinny Munro ruled that a yellow was required.
Gaffney made a vital tackle on Will Boyde as the Welsh flooded forward and two scrum penalties – despite Nicky Smith seemingly pushing up on the loosehead side – gave number 8 James Benjamin the chance to plunge over from the advancing set piece. O'Brien converted the try for 21-17.
But credit to Ruddock's youngsters, they picked themselves up and began to play the clever and skilled rugby that saw them fly out of the traps in the first half.
They managed to hold Wales scoreless over the remaining 33 minutes while adding 18 points to their own total thanks to further tries from Ringrose and Kelleher and eight more points from Byrne's right boot.
Intelligent angles of running from the Ringrose and Gaffney, allied to a huge collective shift from the forwards, kept them on the front foot and the defensive workload took its toll on the Welsh.
The Irish bench also kept the energy levels high with Ryan Foley, Josh Murphy and Diarmaid Dee impressing in that regard, maintaining the standards that had been set by the likes of Ross Molony, Peadar Timmins and Frankie Taggart.
The rangy Ringrose stood out in the number 13 jersey, ably assisted by his centre partner Goggin, and he completed his brace of tries by stretching over past two defenders in the 51st minute after an initial midfield break from Gaffney. The conversion followed from out-half Byrne.
Now back in front at 24-21, O'Donoghue and his team-mates continued to take the game to their opponents – finding space at close quarters and importantly hanging on to a territorial advantage as the final quarter approached.
A second Byrne penalty – an excellent strike from near the left touchline – widened the margin to six points and another try seemed likely as a neat kick from replacement scrum half Foley and follow-up tackle by Wootton forced Morgan to concede a five-metre scrum.
Unfortunately, for the vocal Irish support at the ECOLight Stadium, number 8 O'Donoghue was swarmed over having broken from the back of the scrum and Wales survived.
A few minutes later Byrne was off target from the kicking tee after Wales centre Jack Dixon was sin-binned for a tip tackle on Gaffney.
14-man Wales remained within a converted score until they were caught offside from an Afon Bagshaw kick and Byrne nailed the three-pointer on this occasion, taking his own tally to 15 points.
A bonus point try seemed unlikely at this late stage as Ireland focused on seeing out a bruising win, but their bubbling ambition earned them a full five-point return in the dying minutes.
Brilliant hands in a free-flowing move, including a neat set-up by Wootton and deft pass from Ringrose, led to Gaffney putting full-back Kelleher over in the right corner. A superb finish to a memorable night for Ruddock's charges, who were gaining revenge for a 16-0 defeat in this year's Six Nations.
The result puts Ireland second in the pool with six points and gives them a real shot at reaching the semi-finals. They face Fiji next Tuesday and given that fellow hopefuls Australia and New Zealand are on five points each, they know exactly what is required to reach the last-four.
TIME LINE: 4 minutes – Ireland try: Rory Burke – 0-5; conversion: Ross Byrne – 0-7; 11 mins – Ireland try: Garry Ringrose – 0-12; conversion: Ross Byrne – 0-14; 20 mins – Wales try: Tyler Morgan – 5-14; conversion: Angus O'Brien – 7-14; 24 mins – Ireland penalty: Ross Byrne – 7-17; 38 mins – Ireland yellow card: Peter Dooley; 39 mins – Wales try: Penalty try – 12-17; conversion: Angus O'Brien – 14-17; Half-time – Wales 14 Ireland 17; 41 mins – Ireland yellow card: Alex Wootton; 46 mins – Wales try: James Benjamin – 19-17; conversion: Angus O'Brien – 21-17; 51 mins – Ireland try: Gary Ringrose – 21-22; conversion: Ross Byrne – 21-24; 59 mins – Ireland penalty: Ross Byrne – 21-27; 67 mins – Wales yellow card: Jack Dixon; 68 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Ross Byrne – 21-27; 73 mins – Ireland penalty: Ross Byrne – 21-30; 76 mins – Ireland try: Cian Kelleher – 21-35; conversion: missed by Ross Byrne – 21-35; Full-time – Wales 21 Ireland 35
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Argentina)